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Without Luther, there would be no Bach: How the Reformation influenced faith and work today

Martin Luther never met Johann Sebastian Bach. The two Germans were born more than 200 years apart. But without Luther, there would be no Bach.

At 48 years old, when Bach received a copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible, he made extensive notes in its margins, allowing it to shape his theology of music. Near 1 Chronicles 25, a listing of David’s musicians, he wrote, “This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing music.” By 2 Chronicles 5:11–14, which speaks of temple musicians worshiping God, he wrote, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Embodying a Lutheran theology of work, Bach viewed all of his music—whether sacred hymns or secular cantatas—as a calling from God. He believed his work had two purposes: “The final aim and reason of all music is nothing other than (1) the glorification of God and (2) the refreshment of the spirit.” Thus, he signed all of his church music and most of his secular music with the letters “S.D.G.”—Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God Alone.

Without Luther, Bach wouldn’t have understood the dignity of all work—both sacred and secular—nor the idea of work as a means to love one’s neighbor.

But how did Luther come to understand these things?

Those with a ‘calling’

Luther was born into a church culture that celebrated religious work above all else. In the late middle ages, only priests and other church workers had “callings” and “vocations.” They were part of the “spiritual estate.” Everyone else—from farmers to lawyers to kings—had necessary but worldly occupations.

The rise of monastic spirituality, which called religious workers out of the everyday world and into the desert or the monastery, only reinforced this perspective. The laity was second-class. Life was divided into the “sacred” and the “secular.” And the priesthood of all believers was marginalized. This problem was not lost on Luther.

Love grows by works of love

Luther wanted to connect faith and everyday life. All of us, he reasoned, are priests—no matter how ordinary our lives:

It is pure [fiction] that the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2:9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9–10).

“Vocation,” then, included religious work as well as nonreligious—domestic duties, civic engagement, and ordinary employment. What made work “Christian” wasn’t the type of work being done but the faith of the one doing it. Luther writes in On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church:

The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but all works are measured before God by faith alone.

Such faith, he believed, was evidenced by our everyday work. “Love grows by works of love,” Luther posted to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg (Thesis 44). For him, work was one of the best ways to love one’s neighbor. As Tim Keller summarizes in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Word,

When we work, we are, as those in the Lutheran tradition often put it, the ‘fingers of God,’ the agents of his providential love for others. This understanding elevates the purpose of work from making a living to loving our neighbor.

Labor of various kinds

John Calvin and those in the Calvinist tradition, like Abraham Kuyper, further enriched our understanding of work. Not only is it as a means to love one’s neighbor, it’s also a means to love and glorify God. In light of the narrative arc of Scripture as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, every Christian has a calling to create and bring forth the wonders of the created order. Keller explains in Every Good Endeavor:

Yes, we must love our neighbor, but Christianity gives us very specific teachings about human nature and what makes human beings flourish. We must ensure that our work is done in line with these understandings. Faithful work, then, is to operate out of a Christian ‘worldview.’

In other words, our faith informs how we approach our work itself—not merely how we approach our neighbor. It is an arena in which we can love and glorify God himself, offering our work by faith to him (Col. 3:23). Practicing law, for example, isn’t merely a way to love one’s neighbor; it is also a way to advance biblical justice in our communities. Put another way, God doesn’t just care about lawyers; he also cares about the law (Prov. 8:15; 11:1).

Tools in a toolkit

Although some pit Luther and Calvin against each other in their views on faith and work, the two reformers are closer than we might imagine. Both championed the dignity of all work and denied distinctions between the “sacred” and the “secular.” They both clung to the priesthood of all believers, celebrating the ordinary work done by all people. Where Luther focused on work as a means of neighbor love, though, Calvin focused on work as a means of loving and glorifying God. As Greg Forster helpfully explained to me:

Luther strongly resisted any direct connection between our work and God, fearing that would be works righteousness. God put a calling on our works, Luther reasoned, because he wants us to serve our neighbors, not because he wants us to serve him. As Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” And he meant it. But Calvin insisted our daily work must love and serve and glorify God himself, directly, in addition to loving our neighbors.

Although this is a sharp point of contrast between the two, the ideas aren’t opposed to one another. We might think of them as tools in a toolkit—useful in different contexts.

In places where work is more static—where people stay in their jobs for many years or do the same activity day after day (often so-called “blue collar” work)—the Lutheran idea of work as a means of neighbor love can be life-sustaining. Indeed, it encourages all of us to be faithful in our everyday jobs—even when we can’t see everything God is accomplishing through our labor.

People in different vocational seasons, too, may find endurance in Luther’s idea of work as neighbor love. For example, when I was turning 40 and asking existential questions about whether my work mattered, Luther’s theology sustained me. Even on the days I felt most disconnected from any larger effect of my work, I knew I was loving my neighbors—my readers, my students, my colleagues—through my everyday work.

But in places where work is more dynamic—where people change jobs and pursue various expressions of calling (often so-called “white collar” work)—Calvin’s emphasis on work as a means of loving and glorifying God is life-giving. It can help those who wonder how their faith affects their work in, say, acting or advertising. Calling Christians in such workplaces to search the Scriptures for applicable principles is a necessary part of discipleship and sanctification.

Offered by faith

Of course, Luther, Calvin and the other reformers touched on many other aspects of faith and work, which we continue to discuss and debate today. Yet the life and work of Bach can teach us what the Reformation so beautifully captured—that our jobs can both love neighbor and glorify God. Through them we can embody the great commandments (Matt. 22:36–40). May we, therefore, offer our work to God by faith.  

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